Death to Bureaucracy

That may sound harsh, but hidebound behavior is a business-killer

How do you take on the bureaucracy that damages so many organizations? — James Moss-Solomon, Bridgetown, Barbados

Damages? How about deadens? That's a better word to describe what bureaucracy does; it sucks the life out of a business. It turns normal people, granted a smidgen of authority, into rule-bound technocrats and twists candid conversation about real issues into jargon-laden gobbledygook. In short, bureaucracy gums up the works. It's a competitiveness killer.

And yet for all its destructive power, and in spite of all the people who claim to abhor it, bureaucracy almost never gets the kind of fight-back it deserves. Most people simply suffer through it. We both just finished My Grandfather's Son, the engrossing memoir by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In one chapter, Thomas describes the Kafkaesque experience of trying to improve the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when he was chairman under President Reagan. Sure, the EEOC is a government body. But Thomas' story will be painfully familiar to the legions of businesspeople who've run headlong into the stultifying effects of corporate officialdom.

So why do people put up with it? Probably because bureaucracy just seems like too big a monster for any one individual to slay. And we'd agree, unless that individual happens to be the leader. After all, it is leaders who set the tone for their organizations through the values they choose and the behaviors they demonstrate. And ultimately, it is leaders, and leaders alone, who have the power to set a bureaucracy eradication process in motion.

Not to make that sound easy. Declaring war on bureaucracy is not unlike declaring war on, say, cancer or drugs. You know going in that total victory is impossible and that the battle will be never-ending. To compound matters, an anti-bureaucracy campaign can really shock a company. Sure, bureaucracy is most everyone's sworn enemy, but it's still the enemy within. The minute leaders announce they're on its trail and taking no prisoners, people can get defensive. They can really quake.

Let them. It's the only way they'll believe you're serious. Now, kick bureaucracy: At every chance, poke fun at anyone who tries to install process for process's sake; rib people who get all puffy about their positions or titles. Make a scene when anyone says something hollow or phony to avoid contention. We're not saying be cruel. We're saying be relentless and outrageous. Make it so unpleasant for people to act rigid or formal that they physically recoil at just the thought of uttering: "That's the way it's always been done."

And while you're at it, make people uncomfortable—very uncomfortable—about scheduling formal presentations, especially if they involve slides in a darkened room. That practice is a total bureaucracy enabler. It makes idea-transfer so one-way and ceremonial! What you want instead is an organization where ideas flow freely up, down, and sideways, along halls, in elevators. A business where an idea's value has nothing to do with the stripes on the shoulder of the person behind it and everything to do with their insight and creativity. So as you poke fun at bureaucrats for their more obvious transgressions, make sure you're also building an organization where people who demonstrate an impassioned, boundaryless approach to ideas are both celebrated and rewarded. Love the people who hate presentations.

Finally, leaders can fight bureaucracy by letting people fail. Not too often, of course! But a company that routinely hands its high-potential managers risky tasks and says, "Swing for the fences," breeds a culture of excitement and engagement. And that broadcasts a bold message: This company is not a machine, and you are not a cog.

Which brings us back, actually, to Clarence Thomas' story. Throughout his life, people tried to stop him from challenging the status quo. Because of his race, he couldn't go to certain schools or work at certain law firms. He couldn't even hold certain beliefs. In time, Thomas came to find these dictums offensive. His success is a testament to his refusal to surrender to them.

If you're a business leader, you can't surrender to the status quo, either. True, you will never be able to eliminate every vestige of deadening bureaucracy. But try like crazy anyway. The upside is huge. All it takes is courage.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.